Friday, August 25, 2017

Sigmund Freud: R.I.P.?

The writings of Frederick Crews  have delighted me  ever since I was in Junior High, when The Pooh Perplex came out in 1963.  It gave me not just delight, but lasting literary influence (cf. our posts labeled sotie or pastiche).  Then later, essays collected in Skeptical Engagements and The Critics Bear It Away.     I have not especially followed his evolution from Freud-embracer to Freud-basher,  but it is a notable trajectory, and (being self-critical) is at the very least  entitled to a certain respect.

And now, after long incubation, he has just published a book which … the world was not exactly waiting for, holding its breath:  Freud: The Making of an Illusion.  It replows, and resows -- nay, re-salts -- old ground.   In a front-page review in the current New York Times Book Review, George Prochnik poses the inevitable question:

Crews has been debunking Freud’s scientific pretensions for decades now;  and it seems fair to ask what keeps driving him back  to stab the corpse again.

The most creditable answer would be that, if the case to be made is important, it is worth doing in full, taking into account new developments:  No-one questions when, say, a classic biology text or physics text  is given further editions.   Yet that doesn’t seem to be all that is going on in this case (cf. Chomsky, Freud, and the Problem of Acolytes).


Prochnik’s review is workmanlike, with several well-put observations; but Louis Menand’s essay in the current New Yorker, taking off from the same publication, is magisterial.  We’ll not go over any of his widely-informed insights, since the essay is well worth reading in full;  but only address a couple of points that pursue the theme, “Freudianizing the (anti-)Freudians”.
Menand too sees this new volume as something other than an updated and sturdier consolidation and regimentation  of arguments made reasonably well before:

His criticism of Freud is relentless to the point of monomania.

Menand then applies his magnifying glass to that vexed and vexatious bone of contention, Freud’s relations with Minna Bernays.

Crews imagines assignations in the family home in Vienna as well.  He notes that Minna’s bedroom was in a far corner of the house, meaning that “the nocturnal Sigmund could have visited it with impunity in predawn hours.”  Could he have?  Apparently.  … Did he, in fact?  No one knows.  So why fantasize about it?  A Freudian would suspect that there is something going on here.

As Menand here implicitly concedes, that sort of psychological second-guessing of possibly unconscious motives, in which he himself has just indulged, is rightly reckoned to the legacy of the Viennese master;  and is a permanent Errungenschaft of our cognitive culture, slate ye the master howsoever ye may.


Now we ourselves, in turn, shall get down on the intricate Persian carpet  with our magnifying glass,  searching-our such fragments of analytic tobacco as might be telling, now  not for Freud  nor for his critic Crews,  but for the meta-critic  Menand. 

That salacious item from the gossip pages of history is one in which neither Menand (avowedly) nor I  have any particular interest.   But, oddly, amidst an exemplary essay, Menand now drops the logical ball.  In the very next paragraph, he reports:

Some Freud scholar floated the suggestion that  since Minna’s bedroom was next to Freud and Martha’s, there would have been few opportunities for hanky-panky.

So:  diametrically opposite assertions about the floorplan.   Yet Menand in his own words presents the contradictory assertions with idioms that, linguistically, are “factives”:  that is, they presuppose the truth of their predicate.   “He notes that (X)” and “Since (not-X)”.   Odd, from such a careful stylist.

And now let us wiggle the scalpel a bit, under the skin.
On page 79 of the magazine, Menand refers to a well-known doctrine of Freud, call it P (und den wir nicht nennen, daß wir selbst nicht angepöbelt werden; siehe aber dies, das, und jenes.)   Now, P may well be false, for all we know;  or, true only to a limited extent.   But Menand goes farther, calling it

patently absurd

Absurd is a very strong epithet.  A hypothesis may be provably, definitively false -- as, say, that of the postulated primality of Fermat numbers -- without ever having been properly describable as "absurd", even in retrospect.  And, patently absurd -- scarcely any proposition once held as true by some community, in context, can justifiably be called that:  Not astrology, not the ether, not the geocentric theory, nor even the flat earth.  Our Freudian-Sherlockian thus here arches a brow.  (Actually I suspect that Menand’s protest-too-much formulation here  does not reveal anything unsuspected about his own unconscious, but merely reflects the pressure of political correctness.   Likewise the nervous parenthetical qualifier “justifiably” on page 78.)

So, Freud, R.I.P.  Requiescat in pace?  No, they will not let him rest in peace.
Resurrexit in potentiâ?   Possibly.

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